More than 15 years apart and a tiny margin: Why Djokovic vs Alcaraz is fascinating rivalry
Tennis can’t have two world number ones, as it’s felt the sport has had for the past nine months. In the Wimbledon final this Sunday, Carlos Alcaraz hopes to prove that Novak Djokovic’s throne is more fragile than it looks.
Right now, tennis fans are witnessing something never seen before in men’s tennis. Over the past decades, the sport has had the privilege of seeing legendary matches between geniuses at the top of their game – Nadal vs Federer, Djokovic vs Nadal, Djokovic vs Federer.
Across this period, members of the ‘Next Gen’ have also seized their chances against these legends on evenings when an air of surprise wafted through the tennis world, like when Daniil Medvedev beat Djokovic in the final of the 2021 US Open. Wind back the clock even further, and we have some of the all-time greats: the McEnroe of 1979, the Becker of 1985, the Sampras of 1990, even the Hewitt and the Safin of 2000-2001 before the Nadal of 2005.
But a rivalry for the ages between two players almost 16 years apart—15 years and 349 days—and one which has recently produced some of the highest calibre tennis in contemporary history? That has never been seen.
Contrasting legacies on the line at Wimbledon
To be convinced of this, let’s take a step back, escape the excitement of the moment and look at what Monday morning will bring.
Either Djokovic wins, claiming his eighth Wimbledon and 24th Grand Slam overall, equalling Roger Federer and Margaret Court respectively. It would also be the Serb’s third Major of the year from three opportunities, and fourth in a row from those he’s been able to play, having been barred from the 2022 US Open.
In doing so, Djokovic would again gently remind the younger generation that try as they may, they continue to fall short in their attempts to usurp his throne.
Or, Carlos Alcaraz wins his second Grand Slam title, depriving Djokovic of a potential calendar Grand Slam, and retaining the world No 1 ranking. He’d also finally silence the naysayers who have pointed to the fact that Djokovic doesn’t have his Wimbledon points from 2022, and tie the 36-year-old 2-2 across the past four Grand Slams.
Such a victory would be a resounding statement that Alcaraz’s challenge to Djokovic is not only a point of fascination for the tennis world, but also a legitimate threat.
An opportunity for Alcaraz to write his own story
“If it was not Alcaraz in front of him, I would say Djokovic cannot lose this match. But this kid is from another world”, we heard in London on yesterday in the alley. Things cannot happen like in1974, when 39-year-old Ken Rosewall squared off against 21-year-old Jimmy Connors. The American quickly dashed any thoughts of a fairytale finish for Rosewall, putting him to the sword 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. That’s another story : Rosewall was only seed No9.
Anyway Alcaraz has a unique opportunity—almost unexpected given his lack of experience on grass—to give substance to a recent Medvedev declaration that the Spaniard is cut from the same cloth as the Big Three.
The facts can confirm, or not. Like Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, Alcaraz won his first Grand Slam final at first attempt, and even before 20. However his trajectory, which was comparable to Nadal’s until Roland-Garros 2022, appeared to suffer a slight setback since his quarter-final defeat in Paris that year.
With two major titles at 20 years old, on two different surfaces, Alcaraz would confirm he’s not late at all in total greatness. As an example, the Spaniard would become only the third player since Boris Becker in 1985-1986 and Björn Borg in 1976 to win Wimbledon before the age of 21.
Alcaraz capable of going toe-to-toe with Djokovic
The cramps that Alcaraz suffered at Roland-Garros should not make us forget that he can go toe-to-toe with Djokovic in terms of pure tennis, and come out victorious.
In Madrid in 2022, Alcaraz beat Djokovic with zero hesitation in key moments.
In Paris this year, the final score between Alcaraz and Djokovic does not do justice to how close the first two hours of the contest were. Courtesy of Djokovic’s clever mind games ahead of the match, the Spaniard was put on a pedestal as the favourite to win, leading to a new level of nerves that the 20-year-old had not had to navigate previously.
Even so, he pushed Djokovic to the limit of his physical ability for the better part of two hours ; these are Djokovic’s own words.
A new tennis champion, one way or another
Logic says Carlos Alcaraz will have to wait for his Wimbledon glory.
Rafael Nadal only won Wimbledon on his third attempt in 2008, needing two final losses against Roger Federer before he could triumph on grass. Despite this, Alcaraz is confident his time can come this Sunday on Centre Court, with the Spaniard two months away from defending his first major title, this time with Djokovic in the draw.
Still, chances are that this match will come down to Djokovic.
This year in Grand Slams, the Serbian has consistently displayed an ability to rise to the level required for victory. If this match becomes an arm-wrestle, Djokovic will likely beat Alcaraz. The 20-year-old’s only chance of success is if he turns this from arm-wrestling, to boxing, and scores a knockout blow against his opponent. Similar to his successes against Holger Rune and Daniil Medvedev, Alcaraz has proven he’s able to go toe-to-toe and challenge Djokovic.
If this match has the scent of a summit, it’s not because a 20-year-old player has ascended to the height of tennis greatness. It’s because Novak Djokovic is in the process of inventing a new prototype of tennis champion: one 35+ years old, who was recently asked in press conferences, “Have you ever played tennis this well?
Now that, is something tennis has never seen.